By The Steps Of St. Paul's UK 2010
Directed by Leilani Holmes
Available for free at http://vimeo.com/15334350
Warning: This review contains unspoilers!
I don’t watch short movies.
Let me just tap that in again and repeat it so you get an idea of the gravity of the situation I find myself in.
I don’t watch short movies and I certainly don’t review them... not usually that is.
Oh I admit to liking the odd short movie (the odder the better)... I’m not against them and there are some really great ones out there of course... Dali and Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou, Scorcese’s The Big Shave, Jeunet’s Foutaises, Svankmeyer’s Virile Games, Greenaway’s Acts of God... those are some of my favourites. But I had a bad experience with short movies about fifteen years ago when a channel I was watching started showing batteries and batteries of them one after another endlessly cycling and after a while I just got sort of burnt out and unreceptive to them. I found it hard to start concentrating on so many new movies in a row... probably should have sampled them less intensely is my guess. So anyway... I kinda slipped out of watching them without any real intention of doing so... it just got to be something of an unintentional allergic reaction to them I guess (although there’s always room for Wallace and Gromit).
So why am I writing this blog, the smart reader may ask, which is not only a review of a short movie but also, and quite unexpectedly, a glowing review of a short movie? Well I came to this destination like this...
When I first got into that virtual juggernaut known as Twitter to, initially, promote this blog I started discovering and then following some interesting people on my keyboard fuelled travels... and one of those people was @momentsoffilm, better known in the real, physical world as Leilani Holmes. Now I don’t know much about this person but I can figure out from her tweets that she makes the occasional short film and I also know that she posts some amazing photography filled with texture and nice compositions... so when she posted a short film she’d just shot I thought... oh, what the heck, it’s only five minutes of my life, I’ll watch it because there’s always the chance that she’s as good a movie-maker as she is a photographer.
I’m glad I did because whatever she has as a photographer, she has in spades as a director.
By The Steps of St. Paul’s starts off with two moving shots, one panning right looking up at St. Paul’s Cathedral followed by another panning down to street level... these make up a kind of joint establishing shot which dumps the viewer into an alley by St. Pauls where a character, Harry is observing people around him. He sees a guy followed by a woman, Sandy, who is covertly watching this man... so already you are in a multi-level voyeuristic narrative of a man watching a woman watching a man. I’m not going to detail the action that takes place because you can see it for yourself easily enough but I do want to bring your attention to some of the wonderful strengths of this short film.
Most of this mini masterpiece takes place in a world dominated by strong vertical lines with less dominant horizontals filling them up. It would be hard to fake these, when filming on a location like this you are presumably not allowed to change the environment you find yourself in, and so the choice of location is extremely important to create these wonderful, intersecting lines which split up the horizontals into vertical sections and give you something interesting to watch as the shots are edited together so that these verticals echo each other from character to character as the viewpoint of the camera shifts... even the choice of Harry’s costume seems designed to keep everything echoing his immediate environment. Most of the shots are fairly static so the movement through space is conveyed by the physicality of the actors within these compositions. This is further enhanced by the fact that there is no diegetic soundtrack on the film... apart from the score (which I’ll get to in a little while) this is, for all intents and purposes, a silent movie and this helps to concentrate attention on the very subtle performances of the actors where a lot of the meaning implied by their actions is by their facial expressions and the way they react to the actions of each other. This is something that dialogue heavy films tend to forget about and I must admit, until I watched this short film the other night, I’d forgotten about the power of silent performance myself. And as it happens, the director seems to have armed herself with some very fine performers... either that or she’s worked miracles with them.
Another plus for this one is that the colours and textures are fantastic. The textures of the surrounding walls are so crisply captured and the colours throughout are quite densely saturated, which is no bad thing and give it a look not dissimilar to Hal Hartley’s Simple Men or Elfont & Kaplan’s Josie And The Pussycats. I don’t know for sure if this sense of very bold colour was intentional... but I’m guessing that it probably was (and if it wasn’t, don’t anyone spoil the illusion for me please).
The sense of contrasting textures is further highlighted in a moment in the movie where two lovers connect their heads together and we cut to the character of Sandy as she is standing against a wall which is so shiny that her head is perfectly reflected against itself... her two heads mirroring the two heads of the people she is spying on.
The soundtrack composed by Rob Knight is perfect... it’s kind of a curious mixture of Eric Satie filtered through Vladimir Cosma’s Promenade Sentimentale from Diva, with a touch of Ned Rifle ;-) thrown in for good measure towards the end. An elegant score for an elegant movie.
And the really wonderful thing about this movie is that it conveys the idea of a story rather than giving us a narrative which invites easy closure. It’s a little like a Paul Auster novel in some respects in that the short series of incidents that it documents builds to a point which demands participation from the imagination of the viewer to help shape it... rather than just letting its audience sit back and have everything spoonfed to them. There seems to me to be very much a sense of the visuals wanting you to bring something of yourself with you to help decode the narrative... and that’s really not a bad thing. Personally I saw it as an allegory for love and marriage but I’m sure that’s just me and that everyone will assign their own meaning to it.
Towards the end of the piece, Harry writes something on a piece of paper and gives it to Sandy... we don’t see what it says but the feeling you get when he gives it to her is reminiscent of the end sequence of Lost In Translation when Bill Murray whispers into Scarlett Johanssen’s ear... there is a force created by the absence of knowing what’s on that piece of paper that assures this short a certain potency which forces itself into your mind long after the film has finished playing out in front of you.
And to give you some sense of visual closure, the last couple of shots have a lot of organic shapes made from various bits of greenery that frees you from the heavily geometric world of all the preceeding shots. So you definitely get that release of tension at the end of the movie, whether you have assigned a specific meaning to the narrative or not.
This is a refreshing movie from someone who I can’t pin down to a directorial style because I’ve only seen one of her movies. But I did get two interesting things from it. One is that I know enough from this movie that I would love to see what the budget for a full length feature film from this woman would bring. From just the writing standpoint alone I’m sure the resulting film would be intensely interesting.
And secondly I’m going to have to get over my lethargic response to watching short movies because, if this one is anything to go by, there might be some interesting treasures being made which may be well worth exploring.
Now I want anybody here who hasn’t seen this movie and who has read this far to do me a favour. Just do two things for me right now before you forget and hop to whatever wonderful nook or cranny of the world wide web that is next on your rounds... first thing is... watch this movie for yourself. It will cost you no money and will take up less than five minutes of your time (physically that is, I can’t guarantee that the images and sounds won’t stay with you for a good while longer in your head).
The movie is right here... go and do it now... http://vimeo.com/15334350
Second part of the favour... whether you decide you like this film or not, please email the link to one friend. I’m not asking you to chain mail a whole bunch of people... that stuff is stupid and not befitting a reader of my blog :-o... just email it to one person and tell them to maybe check out this movie if they’ve got a spare five minutes in their day. They might thank you for it.